“Book of the Dead (39): From Shouting to Structure” by J F Borghouts

This book is of the dry line-by-line critical examination followed by commentary type (which comprises approximately half the book with the rest being index/glossary, bibliography, and hieroglyphic transcriptions of the different versions of Spell 39.) And my review of it can be largely summarized thusly: “Meh.” That’s probably a bit harsh, but I just didn’t come away with all that much from it. I did learn some things, but I also didn’t end up making any notes. Usually there are notes. ‘Oh I must share this!’ revelatory kind of notes. I suppose if one is very keen on reading absolutely everything they can about Apopis, then this would make a good acquisition. Apparently this work was carried out in preparation for a monograph on Apopis too, so there’s that to look forward to!

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The Question of Evil in Ancient Egypt

I finally managed to get my brain in gear enough to read one of my many recently purchased books (it’s crazy, I’ve got a backlog of 30+ books with more incoming)… and it was really really good! The title is “The Question of Evil in Ancient Egypt” by Mpay Kemboly and I would certainly recommend it to anyone interested in the origin and nature of Apopis and the concept of evil/isfet. The findings weren’t what I was expecting at all, so much so that I feel half-obliged to give a ‘SPOILERS’ warning in case anybody wants to read the book themselves.

Kemboly starts out by giving an overview of several other Egyptologists’ thoughts in regards to Apopis and evil (including Hornung and Assman), which is very useful indeed because he then ends up disagreeing with pretty much every single one and pointing out the flaws in their arguments. One of the things this book really highlighted for me is the way Egyptologists can come to some quite dramatic conclusions based on only one or two lines of text, the readings of which are far from certain! It makes me feel a little betrayed almost as some of these camps of thought are very well established as “fact” when a lot of it is surprisingly tenuous supposition. In contrast, Kemboly sticks very closely to what the source material says on its own terms and within context, for which he certainly has my respect. If nothing else, this book is a wonderful collection of carefully transliterated and translated passages about creation, the birth of the gods, the history of evil, the nature of Apopis, etc. It is a very thorough examination from start to finish.

So here are the spoilers: Apopis and the concept of evil are NOT pre-existent in Nun, they do not come into existence alongside/inside/with Atum-Re, nor do they automatically appear as a counter-balance to Ma’at. Instead, both come into existence at the same time as/with Re’s children (gods and humans), after the created world had already been established. As such, both are also a part of that created world rather than being primordial.

No one is directly responsible for the coming into being of evil, nor is there any Devil-like source or scape-goat. It simply ‘is.’ It’s almost incidental (and certainly not a planned facet of creation.) Although gods and men alike are capable of manifesting evil through negative actions and deeds (such as plotting against the sun god), neither are inherently evil in nature. The impact of evil actions can likewise be combated by good ones and by upholding ma’at. All in all, the created world is to be praised for being a really rather wonderful and well-provided place.

As for Apopis, the single creation myth that talks about his birth suggests he is an accidentally flawed creation of Re (coming either from some spittle or his umbilical cord depending on the reading of a particular line.) A very strong argument is made for Apopis belonging to the royal legitimacy cycle more than anything else, with his main motif being that of rebellion against solar kingship. He is the Rebel par excellence. In this context Re vs Apopis (cosmic level) mirrors Horus vs Seth (social level.) There’s also a Coffin Text that suggests that Apopis was seen as serving a function in the created world. Kemboly interprets it as, “This combat in which Re is always victorious and Apopis is always defeated contributes to the renewal of the sun god’s powers, and so it is essential to the preservation of the universe.” And also, “[This] incessant battle… forms the tension necessary for the functioning of the mechanics of the created world. Just as with Seth society allows a certain level of disorder necessary for its continual reformation, so with Apopis the universe tolerates a certain amount of cosmic disturbance as a necessary and constitutive part of its mechanics; a notion that modern astrophysics translates by the law of entropy.” Of course, none of this is to say that Apopis should be seen as any sort of sympathetic character. His undying intention is to stop the progress of the solar barque and overthrow Re, causing all of creation to collapse. He isn’t ‘playing the bad guy for the greater good.’ The idea that his constant defeat (and Re’s constant triumph) helps keep things in motion is a happy consequence.

What this all means, or at least what I took away from it as a kemetic, is that Apopis is somewhat less significant in the grander scheme of things than previously supposed. And surely that’s a good thing. The concept of evil not being at all innate to creation is equally uplifting. The only thing any of us really need to fight is our own capacity for committing evil.

Edit to add: Something else I took away from this book is a new way of conceptualizing Apopis. And that is as the dry sandbanks of a very low Nile river (and the subsequent famine and drought brought on from a poor flood.) Dry sandbanks are something quite closely associated with him actually, as one of his tactics is to swallow up the celestial waters and strand the solar barque on his sandbank. It’s just a really good visual and is actually part of the very first mention we have of Apopis (FIP, Ankhtifi’s tomb inscriptions.) “… everyone was dying on account of this sandbank of Apopis.” So now I see him as this giant sandy snake, running through Egypt where the Nile ought to be.

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I’ve been doing a trial run of Tumblr for a couple of weeks now and it’s going pretty well, so I thought I would finally put up a notice about it here so that you can follow me there. Tumblr seems to lend itself well to certain types of content, so you can expect to find different stuff from me over there.


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“Unwrapping Ancient Egypt” by Christina Riggs

First off, I wouldn’t recommend this book for general readers. And that isn’t because it’s a bad book per se (although I would argue that the author is one of those who seems prone to an overly ‘academic’ and thusly incomprehensible writing style.) No, the main reason I wouldn’t recommend this book is because the majority of it has the potential to go over people’s heads. In fact I’m not entirely convinced that it didn’t go over mine. Maybe it was a matter of my expectations versus reality. I was hoping for a book that was going to concentrate heavily on the AE view of wrapping divine objects and while that is addressed, the book itself is much more about how these wrapped objects have been seen and treated within the field of Egyptology. It is very much a critical work meant to make museums and scholars take a hard look at themselves and become more consciously aware of how modern values and perspectives influence (and outright invent) our understanding of Ancient Egypt.

Yeah, like I said… right over the top. Still, I did find some of what I had been looking for with this book. Some of the things (and quotes, lots and lots of quotes) that got my attention:

Most statues and figures would have originally been found wrapped in linen cloaks or bandages, just like mummies are. And yet these statues inevitably have their linen removed shortly after being discovered, with barely a passing acknowledgment, and are never displayed with it on. And yet linen plays a really important symbolic role.

Mummification, rather than having an end goal of preserving the deceased exactly as they were in life, was actually to make it more statue-like. More like wood, specifically. The elaborate padding and wrapping that followed was all part of the creation of a divine image that was no different from a cult statue and which shared all the same physical and metaphysical qualities. Sculptures and mummies belonged to the same genre and underwent analogous “construction” and ritual treatment.

On the materiality of linen: “What seems to have been the most favored color for linen, though, was the palest colour possible, a creamy white attained by laundering linen with natron and bleaching it in the sun. White (Egyptian hedj) was the color of purity, cleanliness, and bright, gleaming metals and light. […] The cellular structure of flax helps moisture evaporate quickly, which is what gives linen its cooling properties. As Plutarch observed, linen could also be layered without adding weight or bulk in cool weather […] The texture of linen softens with repeated use and laundering, meaning that the freshness and relative age of clothing and other textiles would be evident to the touch, and both newness and age-value were appreciable qualities.”

“Linen clothed bodies, whether human or divine, living or dead. It swaddled infants and held them to their mothers in slings. It covered wounds, splintered broken bones, and absorbed menstrual blood. In mummification, it soaked up the last liquid drawn out of a corpse and smeared slick oils and sticky resin over the embalmed body. In temples and shrines, it signalled, demarcated, and concealed sacred spaces. It was graded, labelled, traded, and stored; darned, reversed, cut down, and restitched. Circulated between domestic and temple (state) economies, linen led a rich life that might end on a rag pile, around a statue, on a mummy, or neatly folded and boxed in a tomb.”

“The circular action of winding woven cloth [linen] around the loom beam, like the circular action of spinning, may have helped create or reinforce cosmological links between textile production and the cyclical pattern of human and agricultural production as well.”

“Created, like life itself, through the physical labor of the female body, textiles entered into networks of exchange with certain distinct characteristics, imbued as they were with the potential symbolical significance of birth.”

“In addition, linen had a material resonance with another important Egyptian product, papyrus. […] The resonance of linen and papyrus comes through the fact that both were used as writing surfaces, and writing had a special significance in magical and devotional practice.”

“The redistribution of products and offerings from the temple throughout local communities, and thence households, can be related to Weiner’s concept of “keeping-while-giving,” whereby certain goods – characterized, for instance, by their association with temple cult – have a value beyond the economic confines of the commodity because they have a talisman-like effect. […] Enduring goods like linen used in temple rites, as opposed to linen produced as a surplus, exemplify the character of Weiner’s “inalienable possessions” because they either cannot circulate at all (and one imagines the most special ceremonial clothes did not) or can only circulate in a limited way, for instance to be deployed in mummification and burial.”

“The regime of care for the god’s earthly body equipped a statue of wood and metal with the physical and spiritual qualities it needed to not only be a manifestation of the divine, but also to enable the god’s cyclical rebirth, in line with the rebirth of the sun.”

“The cloth removed from the statue had absorbed some of the power emanating from the image – and would have to be reused or disposed of appropriately, either in other temple rituals or for mummification. The inscriptions of some bandages and small pieces of linen indicate they had first been dedicated to a certain god, perhaps used to make an intercessory request or as part of a votive offering.”

“The elaborate interweaving of linen strips […] created an optical effect of depth and detail and may well have been construed as repelling harmful forces, much as net or knot patterns do in other cultural contexts. Knots themselves were not necessarily avoided, or at least not consistently, either in mummy wrappings or the wrapping of statues; knots could also have positive benefits, for instance in magical practices where they were the material evidence of the actions and vocalizations performed.”

“In ancient Egypt, the wrapping of objects and bodies in linen marked them as sacred and kept them safe and set apart, holding their divine power securely inside and blocking any potential profanation outside.”

“[…] mummification is one wrapping ritual among many, concerned with mutual protection (of and from divine power) and with the seclusion gods required to nurture and restore themselves through their images.”

“Secrecy imbued every aspect of the sacred image, from the selection of materials used to make it, to the facture itself, which took place in an area physically removed from the everyday. In the contexts of the object’s use, shrines or cloth coverings helped materialize the secret, heightening the aura of hiddenness and facilitating the ritual performance of concealment and revelation. Arguably, the layering of textiles, adornments, and surface decoration – like the inscriptions on statues – further contributed to making the object “secret,” which also made it efficacious.”

Or in other words, we should all be making much more use of linen in our cultic practices! Granted, it will not have quite the same degree of community-involvement (as we are totally divorced from its production and it is now an imported commodity), but there are still a huge number of reasons to use it. Including the passing down and re-use of it for amulets, petitions, etc, by priests after its been used in shrine for awhile.

And last but not least (and of highly personal interest), there was also a whole section about the word bes: “[…] The word used for “initiation” or “introduction” in this context, bes, can also be translated as “secret” and can refer to the “secret form”, or image, of a god. Combined with the most common word for secrets, seshta (as in the “master of secrets” hery-seshta) or its variant, sheta, the phrase bes sheta becomes the “secret secrets,” often translated in Egyptology as “mysteries.” […] Presence and vision were key tropes of knowing. To be initiated was to be “introduced” (the same homonym of bes, “secret”) into the service of the god, or as other expressions phrase it, “to see the secrets” or “to see the horizon,” which may not have been just a metaphor, but a reference to seeing a certain space within the temple, such as a doorway. With its underlying meaning of passing from one milieu to another, especially from a state that is liquid and confined to a state that is airy and luminous, the word bes captured well the sense of transcendence and transformation that initiation entailed. Initiation permits the initiated to see what the non-initiated cannot see – or to understand what others may see in a physical sense but that only the initiated can comprehend. Thus priests not only know but discern the secret, which might concern the secret of a certain god [….]”

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Wepwawet and Anubis

Look at what I found amongst the 700+ photos that I took in the NYC museums (and which I still need to sort through.) Finally an image where the Wepwawet, or ‘Wepwat’ here if we’re being technical, and Anubis actually are shown in different colours. He’s still not grey though. Some sort of degraded green instead.

Cartonnage of Nespanetjerenpare (22nd Dyn), Brooklyn Museum.

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Per-Sabu Issues

Well… per-sabu.org is down at the moment. Actually it’s expired. That quite categorically should not have happened and I’m sorry for the downtime guys. Just know that Per-Sabu will be back, even if it means a different domain name but I can’t imagine it’ll get stolen.

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Some observations

In the course of working through these museum photos, I’ve noticed a couple of things:

Duamutef and his paired brother, Qebehsenuef, really do like to swap names on occasion. Personally I quite like it when Duamutef is being called Qebehsenuef, given the number of connections that jackal deities have to purification. It suits him.

Although there is certainly a very pronounced skew in regards to the overall number of depictions of Anubis versus the number of depictions of Wepwawet, I’m seeing so many more oddly coloured Anups. Just like, depictions where Anubis is shown with his head painted in white, green, greyish-green, greenish-grey, maybe even actually grey. Whereas Wepwawet is quite steadily depicted in black or else is painted with the same skintone as Anubis when they appear together on the same object. (Duamutef also frequently appears in green rather than black.)

On another note, it seems that grey might have been used in those situations where the colour scheme has the hair being in black. Black hair + black skintone just wouldn’t work after all. I need to find more examples before I can make any conclusive statements however.

Last but not least: Smug Anubis cannot be beaten for smugness.

Anubis, He Who Is Smug

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Tiny Jackal Amulet

I’m finally trying to tackle the job of sorting, cropping, resizing, and labelling all the photographs of jackal deities that I’ve taken over the past two years for uploading onto Per-Sabu. Since, you know, there’s no such thing as too many photos of jackals. It also turns out that I’ve been to a decent number of museums in that time so I’ve got my work cut out for me.

This is one of the pictures I took at the Manchester Museum and which is too cute not to share:

Super glossy blue and tiny! (And a bit dirty, but we'll forgive.)

Super glossy blue and tiny! (And a bit dirty, but we’ll forgive.)

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May Wepwawet open the beautiful way in the west for him

Today around 2pm UK time, Terence DuQuesne passed away. His is an immeasurable loss.

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Additional Thoughts on Wepwawet and the Solstices

I’ve had some more thoughts about the Wepwawets and the solstices which leads me to believe it may indeed be an earlier development. I had noticed quite awhile back that the two Wepwawets have slightly different functions/natures. Sometimes it’s stated that the northern Wepwawet is the opener of the ways to the sky (and otherwise seems to have a more celestial and solar focus), while the southern Wepwawet is said to be the opener of the ways on the earth and in the necropolis. Something also isn’t adding up for me about the changing of the sun’s course in relationship to them however – or at least not in the way it’s been presented by Naville and Brugsch. The sun would begin to head south again immediately after the high point of the summer solstice, not the winter one and vice-versa. So while it might make sense for Wepwawet of the North to represent the summer solstice itself, surely he’d then be handing the reigns over to Wepwawet of the South as the sun begins heading south. I’m not sure it would necessarily be the Wepwawet of the South that therefore ’causes the aged sun to be renewed’ as Naville says?

I suspect this may end up being on my mind for some time to come.

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